Bront Bird looked like he would spend the 2007 season red-shirting before being named the number two left outside linebacker behind Brian Duncan. With Duncan's move to middle linebacker, Bird is now the unquestioned starter at a position that could help the Red Raiders put an end to their difficulties covering both tight-ends and preventing outside runs.
Bird is extremely tall at 6 feet 5 inches and over 230 pounds but has the athleticism to run with the faster tight-ends in the Big XII while also being able to stand-up the same tight-ends and forcing running plays to the outside. Bird's primary back-up is Julius Howard, who has shown flashes both during practice in the Spring and the Fall.
Howard has the ability to play on both the left and right side with speed on par of Bird, though he lacks the prototypical size that Bird possesses.
While the starting middle-linebacker is easy to pick in Brian Duncan, the race for the number two spot there could become one of the most interesting as Texas Tech fights through the Big XII.
Duncan, who started on the outside during the 2007 season moved inside as defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeil's confidence in Bront Bird grew. Duncan played in the middle during his prolific high school career and looks even more comfortable there than he did on the outside. Duncan has shown, both during last season and in practice, that he is strong against both the pass and the run.
The second team middle linebacker race is one of the most intriguing on the defensive side of the ball. Victor Hunter has made big-plays in big games, including a tackle for loss on DeMarco Murray in the Raiders upset victory over Oklahoma and forcing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown against Iowa State.
But to say that Hunter is a biscuit or two away from playing defensive tackle isn't all that much of a stretch as he easily has the largest girth of any linebacker on the team. Hunter's ferocity against the run is unmatched but his issues defending the pass make him a liability in coverage.
On the other hand, Sam Fehoko is possibly the most athletic linebacker on the roster and has shown incredibly flashes during practice and in scrimmages.
But Fehoko has also had issues using that athleticism to get himself out of position both against the run and the pass, making him a double-edged sword.
Right Outside Linebacker:
Marlon Williams is the longest tenured starter of the linebackers and among the defenses leaders, both in the way he talks and the way that he plays. Williams is a high-energy player who helps energize his fellow players but also the crowd. Williams has developed into one of the better right outside linebackers in the Leach era and with his combination of size and speed, he could intercept several passes and take them to the house.
Blake Collier, Williams' back-up, is one of the most intriguing players the Raiders have had in some time. With the size and speed of a safety, Collier has spent the majority of his career as an under-achieving outside linebacker. That is, until Coach McNeil took over. Collier is not only a monster on special teams but he is also turning into a very capable outside linebacker. While he lacks the true size to stand up against larger offensive players at the point of attack, his speed and technical proficiency allow him to make-up for whatever physical short-comings that he may have.
Left Outside Linebacker: B-
Middle Linebacker: B+
Right Outside Linebacker: A-
Overall Grade: 8.4/10
The linebacking corps should be more effective this season, not only because of the increased talent and depth in front of them but also because of the experience of the starters and back-ups.
Add in the fact that Coach McNeil showed in the later portions of the '07 season that he would be willing to turn linebackers loose to blitz. Look for this unit to account for quite a few tackles and be an integral part in the Raiders improved run defense for the 2008 season.